Empire biscuits are irresistible to all ages. Also known as German biscuits or Imperial cookies, they comprise shortbreads sandwiched together with a layer of jam. They are slathered in glossy icing and adorned with a glacé cherry. There’s nothing not to love about them.
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I first came across Empire biscuits a few years ago and knew instantly I’d like them as I’m a sucker for jammy sandwich biscuits. These particular biscuits are visually very striking. In fact, with the blazing red cherry on top, it’s tempting to call them attention-seeking.
Hugely popular in Scotland, Empire biscuits are sometimes known as Scottish biscuits, imperial cookies, double biscuits, German biscuits (Deutsch biscuits), Linzer cookies or Belgian biscuits.
Facts about Scottish Empire biscuits
What is an Empire biscuit?
It’s a double biscuit made from two rounds of thin and crispy shortbread sandwiched together with jam. They are topped with glacé icing and adorned with a glace cherry or a soft sweet such as a Jelly Tot.
Scottish biscuit or German biscuit?
Although Scotland has adopted this kid-friendly bake wholeheartedly, the origin of the Empire biscuit is actually Austria. So, if you think that these biccies are rather like the Austrian Linzer biscuit, that’s because they are a version of them. Linzer biscuits include ground almonds though, whereas the Scottish Empire biscuits recipe does not.
So why, if they have their origins in Austria, do we sometimes call them German biscuits? That’s because German is the native language in Austria.
Why are they called Empire biscuits?
German biscuit was the original terminology for this bake in Scotland. But, during the second world war, the German name link was severed. References to German biscuits, Deutsch biscuits and Linzer biscuits were replaced with the term Empire biscuit instead.
Why Empire? Well, it was still in the times of the British Empire, so the name flowed from there.
The new name stuck and it’s how this double biscuit is usually referred to today throughout Scotland. However, the term German biscuit still thrives in Northern Ireland – they never did adopt the revised name.
To add to the great name debate, this bake is also popular in bakeries in Winnepeg, Canada, where they are known as imperial cookies. And the term Belgian biscuit has come about because the gloriously thick coating of icing on the top is reminiscent of a Belgian bun.
Reasons you’ll love this Empire Biscuits recipe
- Deliciously light and crisp shortbread biscuits are at the heart of this recipe.
- Making these cookies is very easy and quick (20 minutes).
- Assembling and decorating them is also quick – 5 minutes.
- They are particularly child-friendly – children will love to help bake, decorate and devour them.
- Vanilla is included – though not part of a traditional recipe, it really works here when pitted against the buttery shortbread and the raspberry jam.
- The recipe makes plenty (18-20 biscuits).
- But it can easily be halved if a smaller batch is required.
- These imperial cookies stay fresh for a number of days.
Whether you know them as Scottish Empire biscuits or German biscuits the ingredients are the same set of store-cupboard basics.
Butter – this is mandatory in any good shortbread. It delivers a rich full flavour that alternative fats do not. For this reason, unless dietary requirements dictate, do not substitute it for something else.
Rice flour – this helps to create great texture – sometimes described as a sandy texture. If you don’t have rice flour to hand use cornflour (cornstarch).
Egg yolks – Note that I’ve used 2 egg yolks in this recipe. Although traditional shortbread does not include egg, the yolks are fundamental in this recipe. First of all, they help stop the biscuits from spreading as they bake. They also help produce a light and tender biscuit crumb.
Jam – raspberry jam is the most popular option but feel free to vary this, depending on what you have to hand in your cupboard. Pick a good quality jam though.
Icing: glacé icing (water icing) is the way forward. It’s quick to make, cheap and highly effective on this bake.
Decoration: Empire biscuits are traditionally topped with glacé cherries, but these can be swapped for goodies such as Jelly Tots, Dolly Mixtures or other such sweets that scream of retro fun.
How to make Empire biscuits
Follow these simple instructions to get a batch of crisp German biscuits in no time:
- Mix together the flours, sugar and salt and rub the butter in. Add the egg yolks and vanilla bean paste and mix it briefly.
- Use your hands to bring everything together to form a dough. Add a splash of cold water if necessary.
- Tip the dough onto a work-surface and knead until smooth.
- Roll half of the dough out to a depth of 3mm. Use 6-7cm cookie cutters to stamp out the biscuits. Put aside the offcut dough.
- Repeat with the other half of the dough. Press both piles of leftover dough together and re-roll to cut out more biscuits. Aim for 36-40 biscuit rounds in total.
- Lay the biscuits onto lined baking sheets, chill for 30 minutes then bake for 20-25 minutes until just beginning to turn golden.
- Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
- Drain the cherries from any syrup and cut them in half.
- Sieve the icing sugar into a bowl and mix with water to form a stiff but spreadable icing.
- Spoon jam over the base of one biscuit and press another biscuit onto the top to form a sandwich.
- Spread some icing onto the top of the biscuit and garnish with a cherry half.
- Repeat with the remaining biscuits.
Here are a few tips to help you get perfect Empire biscuits from my recipe:
- Let the butter sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before using. It will be easier to rub in and the dough will come together more quickly.
- Use digital scales to measure your ingredients – the cup system is less accurate and I never recommend it for baking recipes.
- Once the mixture has formed a dough firm enough to roll out stop working it. Over-worked shortbread dough yields tough and chewy biscuits.
- If it is a hot day wrap and chill the dough for 30 minutes before rolling it out if it is too sticky.
- Remember to lightly flour the worktop and rolling pin then keep on rotating the dough after every roll of the pin to keep it from sticking to the worktop. Re-flour the pin/ worktop as necessary.
- This recipe makes 18-20 complete imperial cookies if using 6 ½ cm cookie cutters. Use smaller or large cutters if desired but the amount of cookies made will vary.
- A palette knife can be used to ease the cut-out biscuits off the worktop if they are difficult to lift.
- Chill the cut biscuits for at least 30 minutes before baking. This helps the butter to firm up before cooking begins. It can then melt slowly as the biscuits cook, making the shortbread light and tender.
- Don’t rush the cooking. Alternative recipes may suggest higher temperatures and shorter cooking times, but for best results cook these for 20-25 minutes at 160C/ 320F.
- When making the icing start by adding ½ tablespoon of water then keep on adding in ⅛ teaspoon increments after that to achieve the ideal spreading consistency. It needs to be loose enough to spread with a knife but not loose enough to run off the biscuits as it sets.
Frequently Asked Questions
Shortbread dough should be a little crumbly. If it is too wet and sticky, the crisp, melt-in-the-mouth biscuit texture will not be achieved.
However, when making the dough by hand, it can take a few minutes for all the ingredients to fully bind. Keep on going, it will eventually form a dough firm enough to roll out. Don’t forget to add up to 1 tablespoon ice-cold water to help it bind if necessary.
Since this recipe contains egg yolks, not just butter, you’d be better off using a different recipe for vegan Empire biscuits. Try this one from Baked by Clo.
The best way to store cookies and biscuits is in an airtight glass jar with a tight-fighting lid. I use a large Kilner jar with a clip-down lid. Stored like this these biscuits will stay fresh for around 7 days.
Note: when stored in alternative jars, tins or Tupperware containers my biscuits soften within a couple of days.
If you would like to freeze them, it’s best to do so before adding the jam and icing. Simply bake, let cool, then wrap and freeze for up to 3 months. Let defrost then proceed to fill with jam and decorate with the icing and cherries.
- A truly traditional Empire biscuits recipe does not contain vanilla extract, so leave it out if preferred, these cookies will still be delicious.
- Half a cherry on top of each biscuit makes a big statement. For a more delicate look chop cherries into smaller pieces.
- Get creative with the decoration. Try replacing the cherries with jelly tots, jelly diamonds or Dolly Mixture sweets. The children will love you for this.
- If serving at a child’s birthday party Haribo sweets could be a fun twist.
- Give them a festive twist – use the cherry as a holly berry then add slivers of angelica for the leaves. Alternatively, use coloured sugarcraft icing to achieve the same effect.
- Or top with a Mini Egg or a fried egg jelly sweet for Easter.
More Biscuit Recipes to Try
When you’ve had your fill of this Empire biscuits recipe try the following alternatives or take a look at my entire cookies and biscuits collection for more inspiration.
Have you made these Scottish Empire biscuits? If so please leave a comment or rating below – I love to hear how you got along. Don’t forget to share your creations with me on Instagram too – use #littlesugarsnaps or tag me @jane_littlesugarsnaps.
For the Shortbread biscuits
- 400 g Plain flour all-purpose
- 50 g Rice flour or cornflour (cornstarch)
- 125 g Caster sugar
- 225 g Butter let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes
- 2 egg yolks small
- ⅛ teaspoon Salt
- 1 teaspoon Vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon Water ice-cold
For the filling and Topping
- 6 tablespoon Raspberry jam
- 10 Glacé cherries
- 200 g Icing sugar
Bake the Biscuits
- In a medium-sized bowl mix together the flours, sugar and salt. Cube the butter then add to the bowl. Using your fingertips, gently rub the butter into the dry ingredients until it resembles breadcrumbs
- Add the egg yolks and vanilla bean paste and use a blunt knife to mix it briefly, then use your hands to bring everything together to form a dough. This may take a few minutes and you may need to add up to 1 tablespoon ice-cold water if your dough seems too crumbly. Knead gently to produce a smooth biscuit dough
- Once a firm dough has been achieved split it in half and roll one half out on a lightly floured worktop to a depth of 3mm. Keep turning the dough 90 degrees after each roll of the pin to prevent it from sticking to the worktop and keep the pin and worktop lubricated with flour as required
- Use 6-7cm cookie cutters to stamp out the biscuits. Scoop up the remaining dough and set it aside. Repeat with the other half of the dough
- Press both piles of leftover dough together and re-roll to cut out more biscuits. Aim for 36-40 biscuits in total
- Lay the biscuits onto lined baking sheets (leave 1cm space), cover loosely and chill for at least 30 minutes. Meanwhile preheat the oven to 160C/ 320F/ GM 3½
- Bake for 20-25 minutes until just beginning to turn golden (rotate the baking sheets midway through cooking to achieve an even bake)
- Once baked transfer to a wire rack to cool completely
Finishing the Biscuits
- When ready to decorate drain the cherries from any syrup and cut in half
- Sieve the icing sugar into a bowl and mix with water to form a stiff but spreadable icing. Start with ½ tablespoon of water than add more in ⅛ teaspoon increments, mixing well between each addition. It should be thick enough to spread and not run over the edges of the biscuits
- To assemble, spread a little jam over the base of one biscuit and press another biscuit onto the top to form a sandwich. Spread some icing onto the top of the biscuit and finally garnish with a cherry half. Repeat with the remaining biscuits
- Let the butter sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before using. It will be easier to rub in and the dough will come together more quickly
- Use digital scales to measure your ingredients – the cup system is less accurate and I never recommend it for baking recipes
- Shortbread dough should be a little crumbly. If it’s too wet, the crisp, melt in the mouth biscuit texture will not be achieved. When making by hand it can take a few minutes for all the ingredients to fully bind. Keep on going, it will eventually form a dough firm enough to roll out. Don’t forget to add up to 1 tablespoon ice-cold water to help it bind if necessary
- Once the mixture has formed a dough firm enough to roll out stop working it. Over-worked shortbread dough leads yields tough and chewy biscuits
- This recipe makes 18-20 complete Empire biscuits if using 6 ½ cm cookie cutters. Use smaller or large cutters if desired
- Chill the cut biscuits for at least 30 minutes before baking. This helps the butter firm up before cooking begins. It can then melt slowly as the biscuits cook, making the shortbread light and tender
- Don’t rush the cooking. Alternative recipes may suggest higher temperatures and shorter cooking times, but for best results cook these Empire biscuits for 20-25 minutes at 160C/ 320F
- When making the icing start by adding ½ tablespoon of water then keep on adding in ⅛ teaspoon increments after that to achieve the ideal spreading consistency. It needs to be loose enough to spread with a knife but not loose enough to run off the biscuits as it sets
- Half a cherry on top of each biscuit makes a big statement. For a more delicate look chop cherries into smaller pieces or use Jelly Tots or similar sweets for some childish fun